/ 23 May 2022

Mr President, we have another state of disaster, and it’s Eskom

The debt relief package includes R184 billion in cash over the next three years and thereafter government’s take over of up to R70 billion of Eskom debt if it meets the conditions attached to the relief.
If there are no tariff hikes and no debt solution for Eskom, then just how does the power utility maintain its creaking infrastructure?

It’s about time President Cyril Ramaphosa calls a family meeting to announce another state of disaster. But this one didn’t come out of the blue. It didn’t catch anyone off guard. Like a slow-motion train hurtling along without brakes for two decades we knew this moment would arrive. Now we just need a president to be brave enough to say it. 

Let’s not belittle the magnitude of calling something a state of disaster. The Covid-19 pandemic has killed more than 100 000 people in South Africa, wrecked livelihoods, damaged sectors and set our economy back, worsening unemployment and inequality.

The floods in Durban were nothing short of catastrophic. More than 400 people tragically killed, infrastructure wrecked and the economy cut off at its knees, with some still counting the damage. 

Make no mistake, if Eskom is allowed to collapse, its economic implications would dwarf anything we’ve seen. Eskom represents the biggest single risk to our country, with knock-on effects almost too catastrophic to imagine.  

Who remembers when Ramaphosa declared the first state of disaster? This was an important moment because, without a state of disaster, his government would have probably frozen on the spot. They — and all the governments before them — have become synonymous with moving so slowly they may not be moving at all. And this criticism is fair. How long between commissions, inquiries, task teams and conferences before we see action?

But, when Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster in March 2020, look how fast he and his government moved. An entire country was shut down in days. Laws gazetted. We were deprived of open shoes for months. The point is that the response may not have been perfect or to everyone’s liking, but it proved how quickly a government can act when it needs to. One shudders to imagine how slow help would have been in Durban had the state of disaster not been declared.

Now it’s time for Eskom. Obviously, declaring a state of disaster is a metaphor for urgency and action and not a literal call for our rights to be trampled on as the powers that be scramble to save the state-owned entity. It’s about urgency and action that we have seen is possible.

Remember when we as a country celebrated the announcement allowing up to 100 megawatts private embedded power? Let’s ask all stakeholders who may have shown an interest how far they have moved in this endeavour. The same can be said about everything to do with renewable energy investments — the red tape and slow-motion farce have to end or we’re all going down. 

For those with the stomach for some cynical reading, here is a news excerpt published in News24 on January 24, 2008.

“In 1998, the White Paper on Energy Policy warned that Eskom’s power reserves would run out by 2007 if the government did not make the necessary investments. But, the government decided in 2001 not to invest in infrastructure. Chief government spokesperson Themba Maseko said on Wednesday the reason for this was that the government believed independent power producers would come to the fore.

“Maseko said: ‘By 2003, the government realised that would not work and announced investments in infrastructure. That is when Eskom started reopening closed-down power stations and planning new ones.’”

We all know about the delayed investments in the “new ones”, Medupi being one of them. Here’s a news excerpt from Fin24, dated May 12, 2022: “Deputy President David Mabuza said while Eskom has made progress in identifying design defects in its Medupi and Kusile coal power stations, the delicate process of rectifying these defects will only be concluded by the end of 2027.” That’s five years from now, and almost three decades after the original warning.

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter is doing something we’re not too accustomed to as South Africans. He is telling us the truth. Every time he and his chief operating officer, Jan Oberholzer, stand up in front of the cameras he tells us just how bad it is and exactly what is needed to fix it. Business Day wrote on May 11: “SA will need to build between 40 000MW and 50 000MW of new generation capacity within the next 15 years to replace those units that will be retired and to provide for the country’s growing energy needs, Oberholzer said.”

Without spelling it out, every reader will have calculated the time gap between the warnings in the late 1990s and the farcical unveiling of new coal power plants in the past few years. To put the numbers into perspective, Medupi — if all of it works — can generate 4 764MW. The country needs more than 10 times that within the next 15 years. 

Mr President, please ignite a sense of urgency into our country’s response. We simply cannot carry on like we did before. The answer, as you well know, lies in renewable energy and private embedded power. Please, once and for all, remove the red tape and loosen the brakes and unleash the investment we know is itching to be made.  

But where does this leave the rest of us? Where does it leave small and medium enterprises that are the heartbeat of this economy? It leaves us in the all-too-familiar position of needing to take care of ourselves. We’ve all been to this rodeo, and while we all deeply wish to see real action, expedited builds and the dismantling of Eskom’s toxic monopoly, we also know that there are likely to be excruciating delays and increased power constraints and load shedding. 

Small businesses and households should be doing everything they can to mitigate the damage. small and medium enterprises have a host of private funding opportunities available to them to invest in solar and battery installations at best and powerful battery inverter systems at worst. We must ensure that we keep the lights on for ourselves or else we won’t be able to grow this economy. 

This isn’t unpatriotic. It is pragmatic. Until our government shows us otherwise, every private-sector small business would do well to seek private funding — which is light years easier than the red tape attached to banks — and make the types of investments that keep businesses trading. 

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, then we’ve been insane long enough. It’s time to take the bull by the horns. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, one day in an efficient energy future we’ll be able to sell our excess power back into the grid. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.